One hundred seventy-four

One hundred seventy-four

Jeanette stood in the dark, appalled at herself. The last time she had spit at anyone was in the third grade, at Tyler, and that was mainly because her other friend Roger had showed her how to do it earlier that day. The teacher, Mrs. Clay, whom she liked, had called Dada, and they’d had one of those long explanatory talks that made her want to just die.

She was standing by the river that hid the Civitate Rhei who knows how many universes away, and her father was dead along with her friends, but did that change what was right and what was wrong? It didn’t.

She touched her throbbing cheekbone where Jack had hit her, felt dried blood--and realized that it was the blood of Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone. She felt nothing but shame: what would he think of her?

She was still standing there, doing nothing., when Jack Shift phased back. He walked up close to her, the expression on his face hard to read with only starlight over them, and said, “I’m an asshole. I’m sorry.”

“No, you were right. I put Aventine in danger. You should go back and protect her.”

“She’d know.” His shoulders slumped. “She told me that I grew up without people, and so never learned to hide anything. It’s one of the things she likes about me, she said. She’d know.”

“Look, I never liked you all that much before, and you treated me badly--but you’ve just lost your father, and--all your friends? All of them?”

“Uh-huh” was all she could get out.

He took Jeanette’s hand and they were in bright sunshine.

In  fact, they were standing by a bright blue swimming pool next to a gleaming white modern mansion, all on a green mountainside. It was all very civilized and not very strange, except for glistening bubbles floating fixedly in the distance.

Jack was already taking off his shirt. “Come on, let’s go for a swim.” His torso was very unimpressive.

“I don’t have a bathing suit,” she said automatically, and just as automatically worried what the response would be.

“You can go in your underwear.” Which wasn’t what she was scared of, and actually made sense. “Don’t worry. We’re on Suq--one of the nicest parts of Suq, and this is the villas of one of the crime bosses, and he’s never here.”

“One of the crime bosses you worked for,” she said.

“Who was it that was running around on a pirate ship, hmm? Anyway, where I’m going to take you has some pretty high standards, and frankly, you smell--just a little, but you do.”

She got bright red at that, but started to take off her dress-top--the beautiful embroidered one that Queen Parise of Broceliande had made for her, and which still looked fresh and new. A swim would be great.

“You’ve been hanging around with a tiger and a big woodchuck and an ape for too long,” he added maliciously. “But also, just in case there’s some sort of chemical tracer on you, this should get rid of it.”

The water was warm and clean--and removed the memory of the salt water of the island where--she did momentarily think that she didn’t want to get rid of Lord Elphinstone’s blood on her cheek, but Jack was right. And it felt good.

They got out dripping, and Jack walked towards the mansion. “Come on. Step two.”

As soon as they stepped through the doorway, they were completely dry--even her hair. She had been dirty. The carpet was more like cloud than fabric, and everything was glass and silver and gold. Jack went to another door, which slid silently open. There was a ridiculously big bed.

“It is what it looks like,” he said. Although the room was bright as if from outside, the walls were opaque. Jack went over to one panel, and it vanished, to reveal one of those Hollywood walk-in closets she had seen on TV. There were rows upon rows of dresses--grown-up women’s dresses.

“Don’t worry--these are just templates,” he said, as he pulled an amazing silver and scarlet thing out. Dress-up was far from her favorite game, especially with some too-rich girls in her class--but she could spend serious time here. (She realized that she had just been thinking more about her old Earth life in the last hour or so than she had in a long, long time, and that troubled her heart.)

Jack pulled out something. It was light pastel and complicated, with a dramatic asymmetric ruffle. It was almost ridiculous, but also incredibly beautiful.

“For where we’re going, this should do,” he said. “Should scale down nicely. Stand in the niche there.”

She did, and was suddenly clothed. It was soft and fit perfectly, and she confronted a simulacrum of her, and she didn’t look like a little girl in one of those creepy beauty pageants.

Jack was now dressed in a cutaway coat and striped pants, which didn’t exactly go with his gun belt--but on further consideration, was very cool.

They went back out on the deck. Jeanette had been more than a little nervous at taking off the necklace and bracelets that had saved her life so many times--but there was Gad on  top of them guarding the hoard like a miniature dragon. She scuttled aside as Jeanette picked up the jewelry, and from the pile there came her voice, “That’s a very pretty dress.” She put the embroidered dress in the backpack.

“Hm. Not much we can do about the pack, he said--and put it on his own back.”That’ll work.”

They were in a tremendously tall room glistening like pearl, and crowded with people of a wide number of species, all in dramatic and beautiful clothing. Some were carrying glasses, some globes, and some sticks of light that grew shorter as Jeanette watched.There was a hubbub of low talking--and here and there, between two or three beings, a jumble of glowing numbers and curves.

Jeanette, though, had been in the palace of Avalon, and assured herself that the Queen of Hearts would have dominated the entire room, so she walked with confidence. Jack had been right about the dress--Aventine, she decided, had taught him well--and Gad sitting on her shoulder made her fit in rather than stand out.

Was Jack’s idea to use the party as a shield against the monster? That couldn’t be it, could it?

Jack made for a bulky man in a black suit. He was human--that is to say, Yahoo-like--except for a thick tail that curled around and held his glass in a hand-like thing. His arms were smaller and shorter, and had slender, pale hands.

“Your Imminence,”Jack said with a bow.

“Tuan Shift,” the man said. His face was very handsome, almost too chiseled. His teeth were dazzingly white. He looked at Jeanette. “Introduce us,” he said to Jack, making it sound like a threat.

“Jeanette Ransom, late of Clerestory,” she said, wondering if that would get a rise.

It didn’t. “Pleased to meet you, Jeanette. My name is Mountebank. Halor Iridescent Mountebank, late of Cirque.”

“Are you otherwise engaged, Your Imminence?” Jack asked.

“Not for the next 17 minutes,” he answered. He looked back at Jeanette. “You may call me Hal, Jeanette. He may not.”

They walked to the edge of the hall and through a solid wall.

The three of them stood in a dim red cylinder of a room. “I’m looking for passage for the young lady, quickly and quietly, away from here.” Jack said.

“The destination?” Hal asked.

“The Last Horizon. We have the resources. We--”

Suddenly there were clamps on both Jack’s arms. “The slightest change in the density of your body will annihilate you in the most painful manner possible, Tuan Shift.”

Hal’s tail hand was clamped on Jeanette’s shoulder heavily, but he was staring only at Jack. “You owe me money and blood, you son of a bitch, and I will have them now.”


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